Every year from July 15th to 18th, the town of Paucartambo welcomes thousands pilgrims from the entire Cusco region for one of Peru’s grandest and most devout religious celebrations, the Festival of the Virgin of Paucartambo.
The town’s Catholic Virgin, affectionately known as Mamacha Carmen, and the church where her beautiful effigy is sheltered, are the focal points of an event that is spectacular in all its diverse and brilliant manifestations of Andean religion and culture.
This is mostly not a somber or quiet gathering. Yes, inside the church the Virgin does stand perfectly tranquil upon her pedestal, and people pray quietly; if you enter you can hear a pin drop.
But outside in the streets, joyous dances and loud celebrations take place at all hours of day and night throughout the festival, not stopping until the final procession.
A beautiful colonial landmark
Paucartambo is a suitable location for this magnificent revelry. Located at the bottom of a deep valley about 2 1/2 hours from Cusco city, it is an exceptionally picturesque and charming town, all white walls with deep blue colonial-era doors, windows and balconies.
The 300-year old stone bridge over the Paucartambo River, and the unique fountain in the main plaza are striking sights. The fountain holds an odd assembly of golden statues. Each statue represents one of 15 different clans of dancers who fill the streets by the hundreds during the festival.
The parades of dancers are simply surreal. They dance vigorously for hours. Each group of dancers, all carefully chosen, represents an enduring theme and a specific cultural identity.
They include the Saqras, deer-antlered demons, along with clans of dancing maidens, Spanish conquistadors, regal indigenous nobles, suffering black slaves, and even bakers.
Whip-wielding tricksters, symbolic drunkards, wealthy rural landowners, and malaria sufferers are all included in the array of unusual costumed groups.
A tale of good and evil
Many costumes are intricately decorated, and their enigmatic full-face masks make participants appear as characters arrived from unknown Andean heavens and underworlds.
Significantly, the dancers’ identities also reflect the past 500 years of Andean history and cultural exchange, both glorious and troubled.
At its essence, the Paucartambo festival is a vivid expression of Andean religious syncretism, a rich combination of Catholic worship, ancient pantheistic Andean beliefs, and the relatively modern pageantry that Cusco is well known for.
In Paucartambo, light and darkness, the good, the mischievous and the devilish all come together.
In the end, good triumphs over darkness as the Virgin is brought out from the church on the final day. Upon her pedestal, adorned with flowers, her sweet face radiates pure love and holy goodness.
Devout porters and believers carry her, ever so slowly, in a huge, slow procession to the main plaza. The devilish Saqras cling to rooftops, trembling and symbolically excluded from the world of the holy.
As Mamacha Carmen reaches the plaza, all is perfectly still, and the crowd is filled with wonder and devotion. Through her, the town, the Andes and the outside world are once again blessed and renewed.
Andean Lodges invites you to contact us at andeanlodges.com to find out more about traditions and festivals in Peru’s Andes, and to plan your adventurous and unforgettable trip to Cusco.
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Operation team made up of community members trained as guides, kitchen staff, housekeeping, guardianship and maintenance.